The fall from grace is stunning for Cuomo, who just last year won plaudits for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak and was even hailed as a potential savior for the Democratic Party if he had run for president.
If Cuomo can’t weather this storm, he’ll have only himself to blame. That’s because his emerging scandals both run counter to his carefully crafted brand — in ways he must have known could run him into deep trouble.
The nursing-home scandal, as I’ve written, is particularly stunning from a governor who made coronavirus transparency his calling card. New York’s initial outbreak was massive, but Cuomo’s calm and apparent honesty in explaining it made him a sort of anti-Trump. Today, his own party’s state attorney general has accused him of being anything but transparent about perhaps the ugliest and most-criticized element of New York’s response.
The sexual harassment allegations, though, are even more inexplicable given Cuomo’s past.
The #MeToo era has already ended the careers of many powerful men, but most of their misdeeds predated the public reckoning. That suggested they might have thought their actions would never come to light. Some argued they didn’t truly appreciate how problematic their conduct was.
Cuomo, though, has no such defense. The allegations against him are comparatively recent. They also come after he carved out very firm positions on matters of sexual harassment both before and during the #MeToo movement.
Former top staffer Lindsay Boylan was the first to lodge a detailed accusation last week. She said her uncomfortable experiences with Cuomo dated back to 2016. In December of that year, she said that her boss had informed her that the governor had a “crush” on her and that, in a separate incident, Cuomo suggestively alluded to a cigar box he had received from President Bill Clinton (which she understood to be an allusion to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which also involved a cigar). In October 2017, she said the governor suggested they play strip poker. And in 2018, she said the governor gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips. Cuomo and his office have denied the details of the allegations but have called for an investigation.
The second on-the-record accuser is another former aide, Charlotte Bennett, who detailed even more recent allegations this weekend in a piece published in the New York Times. She said that, in June, Cuomo asked her a number of questions about her personal life, including whether she had been with older men. She said he also talked about being open to a relationship with a woman in her 20s. Bennett is 25. Cuomo suggested in a qualified apology Sunday that he might have made jokes in poor taste, saying “sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny.”
A third accuser came forward in a Times story published Monday night. Anna Ruch said she had never met Cuomo when he placed his hand on her bare lower back at a September 2019 wedding and then, after she removed it, placed his hands on her cheeks and asked if he could kiss her. In response, Cuomo’s office referred to prior comments, in which he also alluded to actions that “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
The misunderstandings defense is more difficult to stomach in light of Cuomo’s own past comments about this topic. He and his administration have dealt with this kind of topic repeatedly in ways that suggest, at the very least, he should have understood that much more caution is warranted in one’s conduct.
Here’s a brief timeline of when he has dealt with this topic, alongside the allegations against him in bold:
- May 2013: Cuomo addresses his rising approval rating as governor during scandals in New York government, including one involving an assemblyman and sexual harassment. He says of suggestions that he might shoulder some blame: “No, because look … is the governor to blame for Vito Lopez’s sexual [harassment]? No. When a congressman is doing sexual bad behavior, do we blame the president for a congressman’s sexual exploits? Ah, no.”
- June 2013: Cuomo introduces a Women’s Equality Act proposal that includes banning “sexual harassment in every workplace.”
- December 2016: According to Boylan, she is informed that Cuomo has a “crush” on her. She says Cuomo suggestively alludes to the cigar box.
- October 2017: According to Boylan, Cuomo makes the comment about playing strip poker.
- Also October 2017: Allegations about Harvey Weinstein break through. Cuomo says he will return donations from Weinstein in light of allegations of sexual misconduct against the Hollywood producer. “I have three daughters,” Cuomo says. “I want to make sure at the end of the day, this world is a safer, better world for my three daughters.”
- Early December 2017: Senate Democrats turn en masse against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) over allegations of sexual misconduct, leading Franken to announce his resignation.
- Late December 2017: When a reporter asks Cuomo what the state government is doing about potential sexual harassment in its ranks, Cuomo responds that the question is a “disservice to women” because sexual harassment exists in many other industries. The New York Times labels it an “ungainly dip into the sexual harassment debate.” The state Republican Party alleges Cuomo delivered a “bizarre lecture to a female journalist about sexual harassment.”
- 2018: According to Boylan, Cuomo gives her an unwanted kiss on the lips.
- May 2018: Cuomo joins calls for the resignation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) over allegations that Schneiderman choked and hit women. “My personal opinion is that, given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out … I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve as attorney general,” Cuomo says. Schneiderman resigned, though he denied assaulting women, saying he had engaged in “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.”
- July 2018: Cuomo tells an event held by Women for Cuomo, “What a pleasure to be here, one of the few men in a room full of women. Could be worse, could be worse. Usually, it is worse.” The remark was criticized, leading New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) to defend Cuomo.
- October 2018: Cuomo announces a requirement that all New York state government employees undergo sexual harassment training. “We are doing everything in our power to crack down on sexual harassment and ensure inappropriate workplace conduct is addressed swiftly and appropriately,” Cuomo says in a news release. (A spokesman for Cuomo has said the governor and senior staff received the training before the deadline of Oct. 2, 2019.)
- January 2019: Cuomo asks reporters who are crowding him to step back, joking, “I’ll bring you all up on charges under the #MeToo movement.” The remark is again criticized for making light of sexual harassment. Cuomo explains the next day: “It was an offhand comment just to get them to move back. You know, the physical assault was overwhelming, but it was just an offhand comment.”
- August 2019: Cuomo says in signing legislation to protect against sexual harassment: “There has been an ongoing, persistent culture of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace, and now it is time to act. By ending the absurd legal standard that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be ‘severe or pervasive’ and making it easier for workplace sexual harassment claims to be brought forward, we are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women.”
- Sept. 2019: According to Ruch, Cuomo places his hand on her bare lower back and, after she removes it, places his hands on her cheeks and asks to kiss her.
- June: According to Bennett, Cuomo talks to her about sex with older men and says he was open to relationships with women in her age group.
That last Cuomo comment is particularly relevant now. He argued for a lower standard for proved harassment, saying it needn’t be “severe or pervasive.” That standard would suggest people in positions such as his should exercise extreme caution to avoid even the perception of a problem.
Cuomo’s alleged actions, at the very least, would suggest someone who didn’t take nearly so much care in his private actions as he suggested in his public comments.
Democrats have expressed some buyer’s remorse when it comes to pushing Franken out over alleged conduct that wasn’t as severe as that of many other men accused during the #MeToo movement. But against that backdrop, how could you have a conversation with a 20-something staffer about sex with older men and your openness to relationships with someone in her much-younger age group?
Both Bennett’s and Boylan’s allegations point in the direction of a man who was at the worst seeking inapproriate relationships with his female staff and at the very least extremely careless in his private interactions with them — in a way that his public comments would suggest Cuomo should have known was wrong.
Even if some Democrats want to believe the best about Cuomo’s intentions — which is a major “if” at this point — the conduct described doesn’t exactly suggest someone with terribly great judgment, especially in light of his own long-professed emphasis on safe workplaces.